In the last blog posting, Gary Green has written a compelling defense of what I would call orthodox Christian faith, for which I am very grateful. While I may qualify as one of those secularists Gary writes about (actually more of a Universalist masquerading as an Episcopalian), I understand his arguments and actually am not as far removed from orthodoxy as you might think.
What really resonated with me was the Geraldo story. If he even had a funeral, it is doubtful that anyone eulogized Geraldo. He did not live a long and productive life, spending a large part of his life in prison and dying in his early 50s. His conversion to Christianity gave him purpose and hope—not only for getting by from day to day but for something much greater: hope that his life on Earth was not futile or his suffering in vain, but that in the mystery of death he would pass to the Other Side.
One of the troubling questions I have asked myself from time to time is this: if there is no afterlife, if there is no union with the Divine, then what are we to make of the pain and suffering so many people go through during their short lives? The marathon metaphor that I used in “Passings” might make some sense for people who like me were dealt a good hand, but what about those who were dealt the bad hands–people with severe mental or physical illnesses, those who live in inescapable poverty, who have been sexually abused, who are victims of racism or violence, who are not able to establish loving relationships, who tragically lost loved ones, who suffer from addiction or are homeless, or who are just not able to find their way in life for any number of reasons. The list could go on. Are their lives in vain?
I also like to use the metaphor that the value of our lives is determined by how we play the hand we have been dealt. But what about those people who do play their hand as well as they can but suffer nonetheless? Is there no justice?
This is where secular humanism pretty much hits a dead end: Ok, so life sucks. Get over it.
This is where religion, especially Christianity, offers hope: Yes, life may suck, but this is not all. There is more. In the big picture, it will be ok.
But, some might ask, that is what you might hope and believe, but are you just deceiving yourself? Is this just wishful thinking?
These are the questions we humans find ourselves asking as we try to make sense out of our experience and the world around us. As we try to find meaning and purpose, and belief that in the end it all makes sense. As Gary suggests in his posting, there are no hard and fast answers: the pathway leading us through despair is called faith.
The fact that human pain and suffering are real for many people came home to me during that eventful summer of 1965 when I was a chaplain at Boston City Hospital. Almost all the people I visited and befriended were poor, and many were in desperate shape. One recent immigrant from Puerto Rico was so despondent that he had jumped off a bridge to commit suicide only to fall on two elderly pedestrians killing them both. He only broke a leg, and was handcuffed to his bed, awaiting trial for manslaughter. A 23-year-old woman died on my watch from cancer. Her working class family asked me to preside at her funeral, which happened in their small living room in a dilapidated row house in South Boston. Fewer than a dozen people were present. Several others in the hospital had terminal illnesses and as far as I could tell had no visitors except for me.
Embry and I had not married yet, and she was working with kids at an inner city church in Boston, when one evening we went to see “The Pawnbroker,” a film starring Rod Steiger about a calloused and hardened, white, pawnbroker in Harlem, who was taking advantage of poor, struggling African Americans. At first my response was to hate this guy, who was cruel and uncaring; but as the film progressed, through flashbacks it became apparent that he had been a Holocaust victim. His life was only marginally better than the lives of his Harlem customers. I believe there was some sort of redemption at the end, but it did not register with me. As I got behind the wheel of the car, I completely fell apart, sobbing for what must have been at least ten minutes. Embry must have thought I was completely unstable, and she would have not been that far off. It was the closest I have ever come to a nervous breakdown. I could not deal with the suffering that I was seeing all around me at Boston City Hospital, triggered by the suffering portrayed in that extraordinary film. Eventually I got over it and realized I had to move on. I had no choice but to accept that this is just the way the world is.
The world, of course, is a lot more—a mixture of pain and hope, despair and joy– and at age 76 as I look back on my own life, I feel that I have been truly blessed. I am deeply grateful.
But still. For many this is not the case. There are no guaranteed happy endings, no guaranteed justice or fairness—at least not in the life we live on this planet. And that is why Gary’s telling of the story of Geraldo is compelling and hopeful.